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Tony Gwynn's death spotlights smokeless tobacco use by teen athletes

High School SportsSportsMedical ResearchTony GwynnAmerican Cancer SocietyTobacco ProductsUCLA
High school and college coaches and players talk about smokeless tobacco use
Survey shows that the use of smokeless tobacco by high school males was 11.2% in 2012

For the 20 years he was a major league player, Tony Gwynn said he tucked a dip of snuff on the right side of his mouth, between his cheek and gum.

Because he used snuff, which is finely ground tobacco, it wasn't as readily apparent as it would have been had he used leaf tobacco, which is chewed and creates a large, telltale bulge.

The bulge came later — the result of surgical procedures the Hall of Fame outfielder endured in an effort to remove cancerous growths in that cheek.

Gwynn, 54, died Monday after years of battling salivary gland cancer. His passing shook up players and coaches at all levels, with some of them wondering whether Gwynn's death would help motivate baseball's many constituencies to sever age-old ties with smokeless tobacco.

"It's a huge thing in the baseball world," UCLA outfielder Ty Moore said in a phone interview. "I'm here in the Cape Cod League, and some players from the South do it. When you ask an outsider about baseball, they think of [sunflower] seeds and tobacco. It's part of the culture."

Smokeless tobacco is prohibited in high school and college baseball, and also in the minor leagues.

Major League Baseball sought to ban tobacco use in 2011, but the proposal was rejected by the players. Instead, rules were enacted to clean up appearances. Teams are prohibited from providing tobacco products to players and players are not allowed to have tobacco tins in their uniform pockets or appear in televised interviews while smoking, dipping or chewing. A player can be fined for violating those rules.

Still, tobacco products are commonly used by ballplayers throughout the big leagues. And, despite the proclaimed bans, minor league, college and high school players are still using.

The use of smokeless tobacco by high school males was 11.2% in 2012, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I think it's a major problem at the high school level," said Brett Kay, coach at San Juan Capistrano JSerra High. "You think you're invincible. I'm a former chewer. You think it can't happen to you.

"These high school kids think it's cool. They don't realize smokeless tobacco is worse than a regular cigarette. It's a highly addictive substance. There's a lot of excuses and reasons why kids these days are doing it."

Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of gum disease and several forms of oral cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. It also provides a higher dose of addictive nicotine than a cigarette, according to research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

One prominent area high school coach said he had health issues related to his use of smokeless tobacco. His message to his players: Be smart, and don't do as I do.

"We tell everyone, 'Do not use, stay off it, quit,' " said the coach, who agreed to speak on the topic only if he remained anonymous.

Kay said he briefly stopped chewing tobacco between his high school and college playing days after a man came to his school with "half his face gone" after surgery from cancer. But after an 0-for-4 day at the plate during a college game, he remembers starting up again.

"It was a deterrent for a while, and then I was back at it," he said. "Education is key and getting to them early. It only takes one time for that freshman to be hooked."

Matt Mowry, coach of City Section Division I champion Lake Balboa Birmingham High, said he used chewing tobacco during his playing days in the early 1990s.

"It was tough to enforce the ban and tough to stop myself," he said. "Even though you know the risks, it's so ingrained in baseball that it's kind of accepted. One day I just said, 'If I don't stop now, I will never be able to stop.' "

Doctors and researchers such as Lee Westmaas say they have grown increasingly concerned about the use of smokeless tobacco among young people. They see a particular trend associated with baseball, because chewing tobacco has a long history with the sport.

"Kids look up to baseball heroes," said Westmaas, director of Tobacco Control Research for the American Cancer Society. "They're modeling the behavior."

Medical experts also worry that the public sees smokeless tobacco as a healthier alternative to cigarettes because it's less harmful to the lungs. But there are other risks that come from contact with the lips, gums, cheeks and throat.

"We do know that with using oral smokeless tobacco or chewing tobacco, there is about a tenfold increase in the risk of oral cancers," said Alex Markarian, an assistant professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

Greg Moore, Cal State Northridge's first-year coach, constantly speaks with his players about the decisions they must make. Whether to use tobacco, alcohol or drugs are among them.

"We explain to them that life is about choices," he said, "but it's also about not being held captive by a substance."

USC Coach Dan Hubbs said he hoped increased awareness about the risk of using tobacco would have an impact on younger players.

"As coaches, the best thing we can do is constantly educate them about it," he said. "It's a terrible thing when anyone passes away, and even worse when it could be prevented. Hopefully, we can use this as a teaching moment and get everyone to understand the dangers of it."

Ty Moore said he wasn't sure whether Gwynn's death would have any effect on players who chew or dip tobacco. For some players, it's already a habit.

"Some guys I've met can't play without it," he said.

Josh Lienhard, baseball coach at Woodland Hills El Camino Real High, said it's difficult to dissuade young players from trying smokeless tobacco when they see major league players on TV "with big 'ol things in their mouth."

But he had hope.

"Maybe major leaguers will quit because of it," he said, "and help out the younger generation."

Times staff writer David Wharton contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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